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the most important language of science at that time. On the other
hand Galileo heralded a new era precisely by writing in his own
language. The great mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers
who continued the scienti¬c revolution after Galileo often published
their writings both in their native language and in Latin. We have
already mentioned the philosopher Descartes, who wrote both in
French and in Latin, as did Leibniz, who in addition sometimes used
his native language, German.The greatest of them all, Isaac Newton,
wrote in both English and Latin. One of the things he used Latin
for was his most famous book, about gravitation, Philosophiae
naturalis principia mathemática ˜Mathematical Principles of Natural
Philosophy™, which was published in 1687. After his time it became
increasingly unusual for important works in physics and mathematics
to be written in Latin, though one of the most famous mathematical
treatises of the twentieth century”the Principia Mathematica
(1910) by Whitehead and Russell”does at least retain Latin in the
title as a homage to Newton™s masterpiece.The transition to national
languages came much earlier within these subjects than in medicine
and biology, where it is still not complete, as we have seen. There are
likely to have been several reasons for this.
By writing in Italian Galileo set an example to his successors.
Moreover these subjects did not have the same solid tradition in the
universities as medicine. New ideas developed very rapidly, and the
people who were engaged in developing them were probably some-
what more revolutionary and correspondingly less respectful of
tradition. But above all they were eager to have a wide readership and
not just amongst academics at universities. This was obviously even
more the case with people who were concerned with practical applica-
tions of mathematics and physics, from surveyors to statisticians
and mechanical engineers. These disciplines did not traditionally

Latin and Europe

belong in universities, and a good deal of technology and applied
science was developed in other parts of the community by people
who had little or no knowledge of Latin. Not surprisingly, therefore,
we ¬nd very little in these domains which is written in Latin.
Chemistry is different again. During antiquity and the Middle
Ages interest was largely con¬ned to what was called alchemy,
which we will look at in more detail in the next section. Modern
chemistry did not really come into existence until the eighteenth
century, when people began to understand the nature of combus-
tion, and it became clear that there was a set of elements out of which
all other compounds are made. The founder of this new science was
Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier, who published pioneering work in the
1780s. By that date Latin™s time as the language of scholarship was
more or less over, and Lavoisier only wrote in his native language,
French. One of his famous works is called M©thode de nomenclature
chimique, ˜Method of Scienti¬c Nomenclature™, which provided the
foundation for the language of chemistry.
Chemistry, then, came onto the scene so late that Latin was never
really relevant. The same goes for most applied science and for a
number of other disciplines, such as economics, which in its modern
form starts more or less in the eighteenth century. In these ¬elds
modern scientists have few or no predecessors who wrote in Latin.
But that certainly does not mean that Latin is not found within these
areas. On the contrary, a great many of the terms which are used
come from Latin or from Greek via Latin, even within these subjects
and within many others which the Greeks and the Romans had no
conception of, and which did not exist in the medieval universities.
The reason lies in the need for a special terminology. Within all
sciences and technical subjects new terms are continually needed for
concepts or topics which nobody has spoken or written about before.
Latin provides a ready supply of such terms which are conveniently
different from those which are used in everyday language. The cre-
ators of these terms like words with an old and distinguished ring to
them and prefer to borrow word parts from Latin and Greek rather
than from their own language. This process is still going on today,

A natural history of Latin

and we can usefully look in a bit more detail about the way it
happens. First, however, a word about magic and related matters.

Alchemy, witchcraft, and Harry Potter

Although chemistry in its modern form appeared as late as a few
hundred years ago, it had an important precursor that stemmed
from antiquity.The ancient Egyptians possessed remarkable skills in
metalwork, and the Greeks could never quite ¬gure out their secret
procedures. Many tried, though, and this seems to have constituted
the beginnings of the very long tradition of alchemy. A main object-
ive was to produce gold from less valuable substances, obviously
a potentially pro¬table business. There was nothing absurd in the
idea itself as long as the basic difference between elements and other
substances had not been made clear, which did not happen until
around 1800.The Greeks in Hellenistic times invested a great deal of
time and energy on this question, and while they were naturally
never able to reach their ultimate goal, they learnt plenty about the
properties of chemical substances and their reactions along the way.
However, the attitude of people who worked in this ¬eld was very
different from that of other Greek natural scientists. They believed
that their art was inspired by ancient gods or famous ¬gures from
the distant past, such as Moses or the Pharaoh Cheops, and they
included in their work ideas from astrology, common superstition,
and a variety of other sources. From the beginning, then, alchemy
was a rather ill-behaved cousin of science.
The alchemist tradition was not much pursued by the Romans,
and these ideas were carried into medieval Europe along the same
route as the philosophy of Aristotle, via the Arabs. Around 1200
there appeared a number of Latin treatises on alchemy, containing
the precepts of famous Arab specialists. From that time on, alchemy
became part and parcel of the intellectual heritage of Europe. Many
famous men spent time on it, including individuals of the stature of

Latin and Europe

Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and Isaac Newton. However, real
progress was minimal.
The main goal remained to ¬nd a way of making gold, but the
means to reach it was seen more and more to be the possession of a
mystic substance that could effect that transformation and also pos-
sessed other extraordinary powers such as conferring eternal life.This
substance was given many names in Latin, which was the language of
most treatises on alchemy: for example, it was called lapis philosophi
˜the philosopher™s stone™ or magisterium ˜mastery, control™. It was
repeatedly rumoured that someone had found the stone and/or had
made gold, but as no such rumour ever turned out to be true, the
reputation of alchemy eventually waned.
The founders of modern chemistry in the late eighteenth century
did not use Latin, as we have already discussed. In addition to the
obvious fact that the language was already in retreat at this time, an
additional reason may well have been that in this way they severed
any connection with alchemy, which was mainly embodied in
thousands of Latin texts.
While alchemy can be seen as wayward science, magic is for many
an aberrant form of religion. It was much in favour in Rome from the
very beginning, or so it seems. Cato in his book about agriculture
included tips for handling various situations. One concerns what to do
about a sprain or a fracture:one part of the treatment is to chant a spell:
Motas uaeta daries dardares astaries dissunapiter. The words look a
little like Latin, in fact the ¬rst one is a genuine Latin word meaning
˜moved™, but the whole thing is just meaningless gibberish. Or rather,
it has no meaning for the uninitiated, whereas the powers to which it
is addressed are supposed to understand it very well.In this way,magic
words may be even more meaningful than ordinary ones. Cato™s spell
does not seem to have prospered, but over the centuries some magic
words and phrases occur again and again in various texts. A couple of
familiar ones are abracadabra, known already from Greek and Latin
antiquity, and hocus pocus, ¬rst attested in the sixteenth century.
Pronouncing magic words is one of the chief activities of wizards
(magi in Latin), who practise the art of magic or ars magica. Ancient

A natural history of Latin

Latin literature is full of references to wizards and witches, who
could sometimes heal people but who could also put spells on them
so that they became ill or even died. They sometimes used herbs and
concoctions, but in other cases just uttered the appropriate magic
words. Some of them were also able to trans¬gure living creatures.
The only complete novel in Latin from antiquity that is preserved
bears the title Metamorphoses, and the plot is about a young man,
Lucius, who is transformed into an ass by an evil witch. The work is
replete with accounts of all sorts of sorcery; its author, Apuleius, was
reputed to be a magician himself.
The magical powers were seen to be connected in different ways
with fabulous creatures such as werewolves and dragons, who were
usually evil, as well as centaurs and unicorns, who were bene¬cial.
The whole sphere of magic is interwoven with themes from fable
and myth, so that it is not always easy to say what should be called
magic and what is merely fanciful storytelling.
With the rise of Christianity, the practitioners of witchcraft met
with ¬erce hostility.The Christian authorities believed that miracles
could only be performed by true Christians and in the name of
Christ. Supernatural events of other kinds could only emanate from
the Devil. In principle, the Christian Church did not accept any
witchcraft at all. This did not prevent people from believing in wiz-
ardry and practising it throughout the history of Europe. Over the
centuries, new ideas were added to those inherited from antiquity.
An important source was old Celtic lore, which became popular all
over Europe from the twelfth century and on. It was transmitted to
a larger public through the already mentioned Historia regum
Britanniae by the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth, a work in
which the wizard Merlin occupies an important place.
In practice, for long periods the church authorities were to some
degree tolerant of witchcraft, but the ¬fteenth century saw the
beginning of the era of the great witch hunts: thousands of people,
mainly women, were burned as witches and allies of the powers of
evil.The ideological basis for this activity was a book called Malleolus
male¬carum ˜The witch-hammer™, written by two members of the

Latin and Europe

papal Inquisition. But even such cruelty on the part of the churches
could not eradicate the popular belief in magic. Interest in the magical
arts persisted.
In more recent times, advances in science and a general trend
toward rationalism have eroded some of the support for magic.
Those who deal in it often combine it with ideas from alchemy,
astrology, and other disciplines that have been relegated from the
sphere of respectable science and scholarship. However, it would be a
great mistake to conclude that magic is no longer of interest.
A proof to the contrary is the astonishing success of the Harry
Potter books.To date, ¬ve volumes have been published, and literally
hundreds of millions of copies have been sold. The author of the
books, J. K. Rowling, has studied Latin, and it is worth having a look
at how she makes use of that knowledge in her books. It even has
some signi¬cance for the general status of the language, for very few
books with any Latin in them have reached anything like this num-
ber of people. On the title page of each book there is a coat of arms
with the motto Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus, which is per-
fectly good Latin and means ˜A sleeping dragon should never be
tickled™. The Latin phrase and the blazon evoke thoughts about the
medieval roots of wizardry and of Hogwarts School, where most of
the action takes place.Within the books, there is not a lot of Latin, but
it is used in a very special way.
Several of the characters have ¬rst names that are Latin words which
hint at their qualities. Albus (˜White™) Dumbledore is a pure spirit and
a force for good, while Draco (˜Dragon™) Malfoy and Severus (˜Strict™)
Snape come across as mean and unpleasant; Sirius (“Dogstar”) Black
sometimes appears in the guise of a large black dog.The names convey
a secret message to those who know some Latin.
Mainly, though, the language is used for magic. The spells and
curses that abound are often in Latin. Several are ordinary Latin
verbs with the ending -o, denoting ¬rst person, such as Accio!
˜I summon!™ or Reparo! ˜I repair™ (used to mend a broken piece of
china or a pair of glasses). Others are nouns, such as Impedimenta!
˜Impediments™ when something is to be obstructed, or adjectives

A natural history of Latin

such as Impervius! ˜Impervious™ (to make Harry™s spectacles repel
water). There are even some short sentences, such as Expecto
Patronum ˜I wait for the Patronus™, where a Patronus is a benevolent
power with a Latin name. But many spells, such as Reducio! (used to
shrink a spider), look like Latin forms, but actually are not. This one
is obviously connected with the English word ˜reduce™, and ulti-
mately with the Latin word reduco; but that means ˜I lead back™,
which does not ¬t the sense of the spell. So this spell is pseudo-Latin,
really based on English.
As a matter of fact, the spells, whether in Latin or pseudo-Latin,
are usually more or less understandable for an imaginative reader
who knows English (and preferably a little French). They are made
up from word stems that are found in Latin as well as English, and
some Latin ending is attached. For example, the spell to disarm your
opponent is Expelliarmus!, which contains Latin expelli/English
˜expel™, Latin arma/English ˜arms™, and the Latin ending -us. The
Latin in the Harry Potter novels, then, turns out to be mostly
English in disguise. The author™s purpose seems to be the same as
that of old Cato, to use magical words that provide suitable associa-
tions but are not actually fully understandable. There are two good
reasons to use Latin in this way. In the ¬rst place, it remains a lan-
guage of prestige, especially in the context of arcane knowledge
found in old books. Secondly, Latin word stems are mostly more or
less understandable to speakers of English. This last fact is a very
interesting one, which brings us back from the murky realm of sor-
cery to the general in¬‚uence of Latin in modern life, an important
aspect of which is that English and other European languages clearly
contain thousands of Latin words.

Loanwords and neologisms
English and all the other modern European languages have many
words that come from Latin and from Greek via Latin. They have

Latin and Europe

entered the language at different times and via different routes. You


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